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Reading Fluency: Speed, Accuracy, Expression, Oh My!

By Andrea J. Spillett on September 21, 2011
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5

Today I'm going to discuss three important aspects of reading fluency: speed, accuracy, and expression. In the article "Common Questions About Fluency," Maryanne Wolf states, “Fluency is the developmental process that connects decoding with everything we know about words to make the meaning of the text come to life. Fluency is a wonderful bridge to comprehension and to a lifelong love of reading.” 

Read on for fun, effective fluency activities that you'll find easy to integrate into your lesson plans.



Speed refers to how quickly a child can read. It has a huge impact on his or her fluency. To increase their speed when reading, children need to be able to recognize and decode words effortlessly.

To work on speed, I use an oldie but goodie exercise (one I remember doing in my high school Spanish class): Around the World. For this game, students sit in a half circle on the rug. One student stands behind another student. The leader sits on a chair facing all the kids. The teacher, a parent volunteer, a cross-age tutor, or your own students (at times) may lead this activity. The leader takes a set of flash cards and turns the top card around. Whichever two students say the word first get to move on and stand behind the next person sitting in the half circle.

Use whatever set of flash cards you want: essential vocabulary words, compound words, word families, contractions, etc. My favorite is a set of our district-adopted sight words, which I call "fast as a snap words." If you are in need of word lists, the author and illustrator Jan Brett has beautifully illustrated Dolch word lists that you can download for free. 

Another strategy that helps students with speed is the use of timed reading passages. Give the students passages to read multiple times. You can time the students and calculate how many words they can read correctly in one minute. Keep a timed reading chart so both you and your students can measure individual progress.

For reading passages, check out the Scholastic book Fluency Practice Mini-Books, for grade 1 and for grade 2. For free reading passages, a colleague of mine, Debbie Hathaway, recommended the DIBELS Web site. It only takes minutes to receive a login and a password. Well worth three minutes of your time! 


Accuracy refers to reading words without mistakes.

Ipod To improve your students' accuracy, have the students listen to themselves read a passage and evaluate it. It is difficult to improve upon something if you don’t recognize what you are doing wrong.

A couple of years ago our staff was given iPods to use in the classroom. I decided to use mine to create an iPod learning center for my English language learners and at-risk students. I have used the iPod to record and assess the students reading and retelling stories.

Students can also work on skills that they need extra practice in. For example, I recorded myself reciting the poem of the week, and students who needed extra help memorizing it could take the time they needed to listen to and practice the poem. I have also recorded myself reciting word families for the students to echo.

With the iPod center, students get to hear language and practice with it without the anxiety of a whole group situation. I, on the other hand, get an instant assessment of their progress. The recordings can be a valuable tool at parent-teacher conferences. If you don't have access to an iPod, use a tape recorder. The iPod learning center has provided my students the opportunity to explore material in an easy, accessible way, which is important, given the fact that I have 33 students in my class. I have also found that the children engage in the activity longer and are able to do the repetition necessary to master the skill. Since I implemented this learning center, my students have become familiar with texts more quickly, and I have seen both fluency and comprehension increase, along with whole group participation.

Readtheater EXPRESSION

Expression refers to the ability to change your voice to show feeling when reading. When discussing with colleagues what strategies they use to build reading fluency, all of them said, "readers theater." Readers theater gives students multiple opportunities to read text with emotion and to practice reading the same words over and over again.

As the students’ fluency increases, so does their confidence with the text. The students begin to give a voice to their character by reading with emotion, excitement, or even sorrow, depending on their role. Traditional readers theater doesn't use costumes or props — unless you're a primary teacher who can't help but include a few hats and a hand puppet, of course. Spend the first part of the week introducing the script. Then put the students in groups that suit the script.The next couple of days just have the students practice their parts. By the end the week, have your students present to peers or other classes at the school.

During this process, it is imperative to teach students the meaning of punctuation marks and how each sentence is read differently depending on the punctuation mark. When a period is at the end of the sentence, the students come to a complete stop. When a question mark ends the sentence, their voices will generally go up at the end. When an exclamation mark ends the sentence, they need to use a surprised or excited voice.

For thematic scripts, costumes, kits, and extras to make your readers theater a fun production, check out eReader's Theater. For free scripts, see PBS Kids and Timeless Teacher Stuff. You might also consult the Scholastic book Readers Theater for Building Fluency. You can also find all sorts of resources in one spot at Scholastic's Complete Guide to Reading Fluency.

I'd like to end this post by sharing a book I absolutely love, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. I always read this book a couple of weeks into the school year because by now my students are settling in and feeling comfortable in class. With that said, let's face it, we — and I mean students and teachers alike — have good days and bad days in the classroom. Reading this book conveys the message that we all experience times in our lives when we feel like Alexander. I call the challenging days "the sun will come out tomorrow" days and the not-so-challenging days "zip-a-dee-doo-dah" days. (Of course we learn to sing the songs, "Tomorrow" by Martin Charnin from the musical Annie, and "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" by Ray Gilbert from The Song of the South too.) It's a great book to turn into a readers theater script. Let us know what you come up with!


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